(J. Northern California Jewish News via JTA) – Though she calls herself an “art kid” at heart, Christina Jefferson is no stranger to engaging in sports.
Jefferson was recently hired by the San Francisco 49ers to lead the NFL team’s diversity and inclusion efforts – a newly created position – and has a long history with an entirely different, but still bloody, athletic pursuit: the roller derby .
In this sport, players with full pads and helmets in roller skates race around an oval track, jostle and jockey around lanes, block and check each other on the way. The roller derby has its roots in the 1930s but was revived on television in the 1960s with the help of Bay Bay Jewish showman Jerry Seltzer. In a 2017 interview, Seltzer called the game a “symbol for empowering women”.
Jefferson started the sport in Ohio in his early 20s. The activity would prove crucial not only in demonstrating the “magic” of team sport to an artistic soul, but also in how she met Julie, her future wife. And it put them on the path to converting to Judaism.
“There is something in me that loves the challenge of something completely new,” said Jefferson, a member of the Congregation Sherith Israel, a reforming synagogue in San Francisco.
Her new position with the 49ers as Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) is an exciting opportunity for the 41-year-old HR professional who worked in multiple retail stores before climbing the corporate ladder. She earned a Masters in Human Resource Management before becoming a Senior Manager at Sephora cosmetics company.
DEI Directors have seen a surge in demand across the academic, nonprofit, and corporate worlds over the past 10-15 years, inspired by changing attitudes about race, demographic changes, and studies showing a diverse workforce can improve business results . An influential 2015 financial performance report by consulting firm McKinsey found that companies with greater ethnic and racial diversity among employees “performed 35 percent better than companies whose employee demographics matched the national average,” according to Forbes.
The National Football League has had initiatives to increase the recruitment of minorities with varying degrees of success since at least the 1980s. Strong positions in coaching, general management and ownership still do not match the diversity of players or fans.
Still, the league accelerated its efforts to make workplaces more inclusive only last year. The police shootings of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and Jacob Blake sparked an unprecedented wave of national protests, sparked calls for reform and changed the world of sports. Players from major professional leagues suspended games and practice on August 26 in response to Blake’s shooting in Kenosha, Wisconsin, forcing the NBA to postpone its playoffs.
Amid the national reckoning, the 49ers are part of a group of NFL teams – Jefferson estimated about nine – that have added DEI directors to their corporate offices.
“Our organization has long been committed to modeling the diversity of its fan base and society in our employment practices. However, there is always more we can do to attract diverse talent and ensure that all employees feel respected and valued on a personal level. ”The team’s president, Al Guido, said in a statement on April 1. Christina Jefferson brings a wealth of knowledge and experience implementing best practices that will help us be a more successful organization in creating an inclusive environment in which all people are excited to work and empowered to contribute . ”
A black, lesbian Jew (with a few tattoos), Jefferson described himself with a chuckle as the “unicorn” in the American corporate world.
“As I rose in my career, I noticed that I was often the only person who looked like me,” she said. “It kind of set me apart.”
For some, working in retail is “not a real job,” Jefferson said – but she was “bloody determined to show people something else.” She was drawn to endeavoring as a form of service and a vehicle for mentoring.
“You catch people in college, in high school. You get brand new people. I would always tell my co-workers, even if you don’t stay in retail, that you will be a better person after you finish your job, ”she said.
Jefferson became a Customer Experience Manager at Banana Republic in 2008 and then General Manager. She worked for David’s Bridal and Gap before moving to Sephora to become Senior Manager for Inclusion and Diversity at its North American headquarters in San Francisco.
The transition to diversity and justice work was a natural one. Throughout her career, Jefferson has often mentored those who looked like her or other strange people.
“I’ve always been into diversity work, I just didn’t realize it,” she said.
Jefferson grew up in a Baptist family in Indianapolis, although her mother did not impose the religion on her or her brother.
“She felt like we should wait until we grew up to decide,” Jefferson said.
She attended the University of Southern Indiana in Evansville, a town with a meager gay and lesbian scene. The school is just a short drive from a “sunset town” where blacks were historically not allowed after sunset. Jefferson called it “Kentucky-ana”.
“Growing up black in Indiana was a very interesting experience,” she said. “If people don’t understand that there is still racism in this country, you kind of have to laugh.”
Jefferson spoke to J. on April 20, the day a Minnesota jury convicted former police officer Derek Chauvin of the murder of George Floyd. The news surfaced above the conversation, especially since Floyd’s assassination on May 25 last year helped catalyze the reckoning of the race that turned the sports world upside down and brought us to the present moment.
Regarding the convictions against Chauvin, Jefferson said it brought some relief, “some hope in this world”. Despite all the evidence, “so many people out there we just held our breath.”
Her journey to Judaism began near Columbus, Ohio, where she worked in retail in her early 20s and played roller derby. Many of her friends were Jews, and one Friday night she joined a friend, a referee in her roller derby league, on Shabbat.
“He could say all the prayers so eloquently,” she recalls. “I thought maybe one day I would be like that.”
Although her friend had never been to that particular synagogue before, it fit in with it.
“The moment you start saying the V’ahavta [prayer]Everyone knows all the words. It doesn’t matter what the cadence is, anyone can tell, ”said Jefferson. “There was something to it … I thought, wow.”
She would study and convert in Ohio before moving to San Francisco in 2008, but not before meeting Julie Driscoll, also a roller derby referee. Driscoll’s family is Catholic, but they didn’t grow up with religion. The two became friends and stayed in touch even as Jefferson moved across the country to work, including a visit to Washington, DC
They began their relationship in 2012 and were married at Sherith Israel on October 20, 2015. The officer was Rabbi Larry Raphael, then the senior rabbi who died in 2019.
Driscoll took Judaism classes and learned a little Hebrew before the wedding. She goes to school with Jefferson and is involved in community service at the synagogue, including the HaMotzi food service program.
“You don’t have to be Jewish to be a hardcore volunteer,” Jefferson said. “That’s how we roll in this household.”
She is quite active in the San Francisco Jewish community herself and is a member of the board of directors of the Jewish Community Relations Council and chair of the membership committee at Sherith. She is also the school librarian.
“I’m a huge nerd,” Jefferson said with a laugh.
Although the 49ers and staff are now working remotely, Jefferson will have an office in Levi’s Stadium upon their return. For players, the off-season voluntary training sessions began on April 19, but will be conducted remotely due to the pandemic. The mandatory mini camp starts in June and the preseason starts in August. Jefferson said she was honored to work for a historic franchise.
In meetings outside of the Jewish world, Jefferson often describes her life’s work – helping people from different backgrounds fulfill their professional potential and feeling included in the workplace – as a form of social justice.
“Really, it’s just Tikkun Olam,” she said. “How can we fix this broken world.”